Europe is happy gambling with its politics

Dutch establishment holds off populist wave
Dutch establishment holds off populist wave

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Dutch establishment holds off populist wave 00:10

Nic Robertson is CNN's international diplomatic editor. The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.

(CNN)Politics, like life, is Darwinian: A failure to evolve leads to extinction.

The Dutch elections put that process in a petri dish and under a microscope.
The results give a remarkable insight into a blossoming of a diverse -- and in some cases dark -- political life.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte has achieved, to paraphrase his own lexicon, a quarter-final victory against angry anti-immigrant populists.
    Yet the results reveal his football analogy as misleading. A decade ago, Dutch politics might have been more easily defined as a two-sided tussle. Today there are many more teams on the field.
    Twenty-eight parties were on the ballot and some saw remarkable gains. Rutte's VVD, on the other hand, wracked up significant losses, though not enough to see it ousted from the top spot on the podium. But his coalition partner PvdA, the Dutch Labour Party, has been near eviscerated.
    Rutte will struggle to form a coalition, while his bete noir Geert Wilders, despite failing to match his own over-egged expectations, did actually make gains.
    And that's the story of the Dutch election: Traditional parties lost votes to smaller political outliers, including Left Greens and D66. Despite the incumbent holding on, the Dutch election does little to suggest the appetite for radical political change is abating.
    The evolutionary outcome will be recognized by many aging Northern Hemisphere democracies.
    Brexit was a binary choice on the status quo, and Trump's triumph was equally a known versus unknown pick. Both, like the Dutch, revealed boredom with the "same again please" served up by successive governments in the past half century.
    Yet this appetite for something new that I heard about so often around the time of the Brexit vote and continue to hear today reveals a deep counterintuitive dependence on the very structures that voters seem to want to change.
    The taxi driver who drove me home from 10 Downing Street in the early hours of June 24 last year, as the day and reality of Brexit dawned, asked me -- as sterling had already started to tumble -- would the politicians and bankers be able to fix it all. He'd voted leave.
    A few hours later, retracing the same route, another driver, also a Brexiter, asked me the same question. He wanted a better future for his kids, had not known whose arguments in the heated pre-referendum debate to trust. Whatever happens next, they'll be able to make it all OK, he asked.
    In a well-heeled North Yorkshire town days before the Brexit vote, I heard logic being stood on its head. Immigration, one man told me, would make him vote to leave the European Union, yet he readily admitted that his town didn't have an immigration issue.
    Indeed, the spa town had yet to receive its first Syrian refugee. A few minutes later another voter told me he was voting for leave quite simply for change.
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    All this has been explained at length by me and others as a kick at globalization, voters frustrated their fears are being ignored by mainstream politicians; a choice between engaging with and hoping to reform globalists, or turning your back on them and hoping they'll go away and be replaced by something new and better.
    France, too, will soon be left with a binary choice in the upcoming presidential election.
    It will most likely be a contest between nationalist Marine le Pen and the youthful, left-of-center Emmanuel Macron, a choice that eclipses France's traditional left/right parties.
    Denied the evolutionary political spread of the Dutch election, voters will have to hope that whatever the outcome -- Macron's difficulty finding the allies to form an effective government able to push through his agenda or le Pen's destructive tilt at a Frexit -- France's economy can withstand the turmoil.
    Having spent enough time in war zones over the past few decades, I've seen what gambling with the future can look like -- and it's ugly.
    First security, then the economy, peace of mind, health care, schools, electricity, food, water, your own roof. Each eroded, slipping uncontrollably from your grasp like sand between your fingers.
    Perhaps it has jaded my view, perhaps just shaded it with reality. Whichever it is, Europe's political evolution, regardless of the hardships some voters feel, seems to be coming from a position of relative comfort, blind to potential pitfalls.
    It's a testament to the traditional left and right politics upon whose backs democracy has evolved that voters today want to -- and can -- think outside the box in such numbers.
    Yet while evolution by its very definition knows no bounds, democracy does have its limits. It's easy enough to vote in change for the sake of change, but how effective your new political reality is in cleaning up the mess of myriad political protozoa is another matter entirely.